Caligula’s reign as emperor begins relatively smoothly. Because of Livia’s careful decisions during Augustus’ reign and the majority of Tiberius’ reign, Caligula has well-trained armies, an overflowing treasury, and a largely successful system of government at his disposal. Moreover, Roman populace is extremely enthusiastic about Caligula because they view him as simply another version of Germanicus. At first, Caligula appears to be fulfilling his people’s expectations; he pays off Tiberius’ debts, doubles the wages of the soldiers in his armies, releases all of the political prisoners, and sends millions of gold pieces into circulation to benefit the general population. Shortly after this demonstration of benevolence, however, Caligula falls ill with a “brain fever” and is feared to be near death.
Caligula survives the fever, but the illness makes him go insane and he begins to believe that he is undergoing a physical metamorphosis and becoming a god. When Claudius is summoned to visit Caligula in his “altered” state, Claudius is able to recognize Caligula’s madness and, by humoring him, keep from being killed. However, Claudius is unable to understand why Caligula’s divinity is so easily accepted by everyone else in their inner circle. After Caligula’s metamorphosis, his moods become impossible to predict, and he begins to kill people randomly, starting with his son, Gemellus. Antonia is appalled by Caligula’s behavior and, after confronting him about his murder of Gemellus, she kills herself.
Caligula remembers Macro’s involvement in Tiberius’ death and fears for his own safety. On a pretense, he appoints Macro as the governor of Egypt and then has him arrested while he is getting on a ship. Caligula accuses Macro and his wife of treasonous activities, and Macro and his wife are forced to kill themselves. Cassius Chaerea is appointed to replace Macro as the Commander of the Guards. In addition to murdering family members and friends in his madness, Caligula marries the wives of other men and sentences people to death for selling hot water and razors on the street.
The people of Rome do not realize the extent of Caligula’s madness and continue to be enthusiastic about his reign. Caligula arranges for an endless array of chariot-races and theatrical shows to maintain this enthusiasm, and, after a few months, the once-full treasury is nearly empty. Realizing that he needs to economize, Caligula begins to take drastic steps, selling priesthoods to the highest bidder and convicting wealthy men of imaginary crimes in order to execute them and take their fortunes.
Caligula’s popularity also begins to diminish as the people of Rome tire of his expensive entertainment and strange behavior. Drusilla dies, and, while Claudius suspects that Caligula has killed her, he has no proof. Caligula also banishes Lesbia and Agrippinilla on the charge of adultery, but not until after he constructs a brothel in the palace and sells sexual favors from Lesbia and Agrippinilla to help his money problems. Caligula also declares war on Neptune, even embarking on a “battle” against Neptune and collecting thousands of seashells as the spoils of war.
Throughout Caligula’s insanity, Claudius is able to remain alive by pretending to be a fool. Still, Claudius is forced to give all of his money to Caligula and lives in utter poverty with Calpurnia. Late one night, he is summoned to see Caligula at the palace and assumes that he is finally about to be killed. Instead, Caligula wants Claudius to see his latest play, in which Caligula plays the role of the “rosy-fingered” Goddess Dawn. After the play, Caligula insists that Claudius marries Messalina.
Caligula’s madness continues to intensify with each passing day. Eventually, Caligula is assassinated by Cassius Chaerea and several other soldiers at the Palatine Festival. The assassins also murder Caligula’s most-recent wife, Caesonia, and their young daughter, Drusilla. Claudius tries to hide in the midst of the riot but is discovered by a group of soldiers. Instead of killing him, as Claudius expects, the soldiers proclaim him emperor. Claudius initially refuses to be emperor, arguing for a Republic, but the soldiers ignore him. As he is paraded around the palace on their soldiers, Claudius realizes that the omen of the wolf cub and the Sibyl’s prophecy have finally come true.
Although Caligula’s reign begins well, his madness soon consumes him and results in his eventual assassination. While Caligula’s behavior as a child demonstrated a clearly sadistic persona, it is unclear whether or not Caligula’s reign could have been a benevolent one if he had not gone insane. Claudius asserts that Caligula’s initial activities as emperor appear to be honorable. It is only after the brain fever that Caligula begins to demonstrate to the cruel and sadistic behavior that seems to have pervaded his childhood.
With that in mind, it is interesting to consider Claudius’ literary motivation in presenting Caligula the way that he does. Because Claudius is writing this narrative long after Caligula’s death, he cannot help but present Caligula’s nature within the framework of Caligula’s eventual madness, even if it is inaccurate. As such, a reader cannot help but wonder if Caligula’s madness and bloody end was preordained or simply the result of bad luck.
Significantly, Claudius’ survival once again depends on his pretending to be a fool. During the reigns of Augustus and Tiberius, Claudius emphasized his stammer and limp, but he was rarely in the presence of either emperor. During Caligula’s reign, on the other hand, Claudius is constantly observed by Caligula and even lives in the palace with him at a certain point. As such, Claudius is forced to take his guise of foolishness to an entirely new level, if only to entertain Caligula enough to spare him. In the end, it seems that Pollio’s advice is the key to Claudius’ life: when Caligula dies, Claudius has officially outlived the rest of his entire family.
At the end of the novel, all of the prophecies concerning Claudius appear to have come true. He is pronounced to be emperor and, despite his desire for a republic, Claudius realizes that the wisest decision is to accept his appointment. Unfortunately the novel ends at the precise moment of Claudius’ ascension, and only the narrative of “Claudius the God,” the sequel, will reveal whether or not Claudius actually becomes the savior of Rome as the Sibyl has promised.
In addition to perpetuating the fatalistic theme of the novel, the format of this conclusion allows Graves to construct a strictly cyclical narrative. When the novel opens, Claudius is already emperor; he is simply describing each of the series of events that eventually to his current position. Because there is no real question as to Claudius’ fate, despite what Claudius’ family believes, Graves is able to create a smooth transition between the fictitious elements of the novel and the historical facts. The reader does not need to question the direction of the narrative because the conclusion is already revealed at the beginning. As such, the reader can focus on what Graves and Claudius view to be the most important elements of the narrative: the personal relationships and ambitions of the members of the Julio-Claudian line.